The Lectionary for this 8th Sunday in Ordinary time gives us as its first reading an excerpt from the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sira (composed about 180 or so years before the birth of Christ). By the third century the book was known among Latin-speaking Christians in North Africa as Ecclesiasticus because of its prominent use in churches for catechesis. Amongst other things it offers us the following insight: ‘the test of a man is in his conversation’. Now that might well strike a chord with a lot of men, myself included, not to mention a fair number of women. As men we are often accused of saying very little that matters particularly in affairs of the heart and do not easily engage in conversation. Whatever the reality there are of course other ways of knowing a person’s worth other than through words that are spoken and mercifully the Gospel reading points to how we can discern people by their fruits, and not just by their words.
In the Gospel Jesus names as hypocrites those who notice faults in others but are blind to their own shortcomings. So how do we tell the truth to others without destroying their dignity and, as one writer puts it, ‘leaving them in the casualty department’? We do fine-tune our observations of others and quickly see their moral shortcomings. In his teaching however Jesus identifies self-criticism as something which is an essential part of genuine relations with others. If we are not used to introspection and self-observation we may not see ourselves clearly. Most of the time we are not paragons of objectivity, passing neutral judgements on what we see and when we view the imperfections in the world around us we sometimes do so as if we are not part of it. So how do we remove the speck from our brother’s eye if not by removing the plank from our own? The only effective way of helping our neighbour to improve is to tell the story of our own conversion. As ever there is a story which can illustrate:
‘A woman brought her granddaughter to Ghandi and commanded, “My granddaughter eats too much sugar. Tell her to stop.”
Ghandi said, “Bring her back next week.”
The grandmother and granddaughter returned next week. But Ghandi put them off, saying the same thing, “Bring her back to me next week.” This happened three times.
Finally Ghandi said to the granddaughter, “You should not eat so much sugar. It is not good for you.”
The grandmother was nonplussed. “We waited four weeks for this simple remark?”
“Ah!” Ghandi sighed. “It took me that long to stop eating too much sugar myself.”
So maybe the best, and indeed only way to help our neighbour is to tell the story of our own struggle, our own conversion. And as we approach the season of Lent we can begin to learn anew the discipline of self-knowledge. Paraphrasing Jesus ben Sira’s remark above might then leave us with: ‘the true test of a man is in his conversation with himself.’